HomeTrending MLB NewsSunday Notes: Orion Kerkering Studies for a Doctorate in Sliders

Sunday Notes: Orion Kerkering Studies for a Doctorate in Sliders

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Orion Kerkering enjoyed a meteoric rise to the big leagues last year. The 2022 fifth-round draft pick began the campaign in Low-A Clearwater, and when
October rolled around he was taking the mound for the Philadelphia Phillies in the postseason. His numbers along the way were eye-catching. Pitching out of the bullpen at four minor-league levels, the University of South Florida product logged a 1.51 ERA and a 38.9% strikeout rate over 53-and-two-thirds innings. Called up in late September, he proceeded to fan six batters and allow one run in three appearances comprising the same number of innings.

That Kerkering was then entrusted to take the ball in the playoffs was a testament to his talent — a big part of which is a bat-missing offering even more impressive than his 98.6-mph fastball.

“That’s hard for me to do,” Kerkering replied when asked to describe his signature pitch. “I call it a slider and everyone says it’s one of the best ones out there. To that, I’m kind of, ‘OK, whatever. That’s fine.’ I just trust it as much as I can.”

The 22-year-old right-hander started throwing a slider as a Venice, Florida prep. Velocity-wise, it was 78-81 mph early on, and from there it got “faster and faster” to where it is now a crisp 86-87. The shape is basically the same — “with maybe a little more movement” — as is the grip.

“It’s kind of like how you teach a 12-year-old a curveball,” he said of the grip. “But instead of spinning on top of it, I spin on the 1:20-2:00 o’clock axis. If you think of [Clayton] Kershaw’s curveball, it will spin and then drop. Mine is the same way. It has the gyro spin, then it takes off.”

Kerkering began learning the why of his slider profile in college, and he’s further advanced that knowledge in pro ball. By and large, the most meaningful development advancements have been educational in nature.

“I’ve played around with it over the years,” Kerkering explained. “I graduated high school having learned a little bit. In college, I learned a little bit more. It’s been like working toward a master’s, and then a doctorate, in the slider. It’s been about figuring out the best way to throw it.”

Asked to elaborate, Kerkering said that he’s worked on how to better locate his best weapon — including how to backdoor it to lefties — as well as how to optimize its effectiveness in certain counts. Learning to pitch backwards has been part of the educational process.

As for his pitch metrics, Kerkering isn’t big into the analytics. At the same time, he does know the numbers.

“It’s right around zero vertical — almost like a power cutter — with anywhere from 12 to 20 [inches] horizontal” said Kerkering. “How much just depends on how it comes out, whether I get good spin or not-as-good spin. I wouldn’t say there’s a perfect shape to it, but it’s usually around negative one or two, and 16.”

Kerkering’s repertoire now includes two variations of a fastball.

“The four-seam is something I’ve always had, but they’ve called it a sinker because of how much horizontal it has, about 14-15,” explained Kerkering “The two-seam is anywhere from 9-to-12 vert and about 20 horizontal. I added it this offseason to have something I could play more east-west off of my slider.”

That’s bad news to hitters. One high-velocity fastball to augment one of the game’s most-lethal secondaries is a big enough challenge. Two fastballs makes for an even bigger obstacle.Regardless, his bread and butter will always be the slider. More than anything, it’s what makes Kerkering as good as he is.

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Irish Meusel went 18 for 38 against Whitey Glazner.

Paddy Baumann went 14 for 25 against Dutch Leonard.

Dale Murphy went 13 for 26 against Bob Ojeda.

Tom O’Malley went 6 for 10 against Joaquin Andujar.

Pete O’Brien went 6 for 10 against Mark Clear.

———

Ron Washington knows infield defensive. Not only did the Los Angeles Angels manager play second, short, and third in the big leagues, he’s considered one of the game’s best infield instructors. Piggy-backing on last Sunday’s column, within which I quoted San Francisco Giants manager Bob Melvin on Matt Chapman’s arm strength, I asked “Wash” about the action of throws across the diamond.

“When you see tail, you can fix that,” replied Washington. “You can’t fix hop. That’s ‘pow!’ You can fix dip. What I mean by dip, the ball is going at their feet; it’s going down. You can fix that type of stuff. But you can’t fix hop. Hop just has that in it.”

Washington went on to say that there would be no reason to correct hop, as a major-league first baseman isn’t going to have a problem catching such throws. As for infielders who can really pop a mitt — guys whose arms suggest they could be toeing a rubber — the baseball lifer was quick with a name.

[Miguel] Sano,” said Washington. “But I don’t think we’re going to put his big butt on the mound. He’s one of those arms that you don’t see often. The ball just… when he lets it go, it stays where it is. You don’t have no dip. You don’t have no run. You don’t have no ride. It stays where it is.”

What kind of arm did the infielder-turned-manager have back in his playing days?

“I had about a five-and-a-half [on the 2-8 scouting scale],” Washington replied. “It wasn’t weak and it wasn’t super strong. But I could throw the ball from anywhere on that infield and get an out. I don’t look around trying [to find] guys who have tremendous arm strength. If you walk into one of those, you got him. All I want you to do is, when you catch the ball, be able to get the out.”

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Which player is the key to the Boston Red Sox’s success this season? I asked that question to Jen McCaffrey, who covers the AL East underdogs for The Athletic.

Trevor Story,” McCaffrey replied. “Story is a game-changer on defense, but really hasn’t been able to stay on the field because of injuries the last two years since signing his six-year, $140 million deal in 2022. If healthy, his defense at shortstop will go a long way in solidifying the rest of the infield in turn helping a young pitching staff. On offense, if Story can get to a 100 OPS+ player — he posted a 102 OPS+ in his first year in Boston — that would lengthen the lineup. We know what Rafael Devers and even Triston Casas, to an extent, will provide offensively, but if Story can add a little more at the plate it will help a Red Sox team that needs most of its players to perform at the top of their potential to stay competitive this season.”

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Which player is the key to Cincinnati’s success this season? C. Trent Rosecrans covers the Reds for The Athletic, and in his opinion, a 24-year-old right-hander stands out in a needs-to-stay-healthy pitching staff.

“The Reds have assembled an impressive group of position players, giving them some redundancy that has already shown to valuable with the suspension of Noelvi Marte,” Rosecrans told me. “Even if Elly De La Cruz doesn’t take the next step and is merely the most exciting player in baseball instead of the best, Matt McLain showed his ceiling, and Jonathan India is a platoon player, there’s still the likes of Christian Encarnacion-Strand, Spencer Steer, Will Benson, TJ Friedl, and more.

“The key to the season is healthy, consistent starting pitching. Last year the Reds extended Hunter Greene, hoping he can be the long-term anchor to the rotation. While Frankie Montas got the Opening Day nod over Greene, he’s on a one-year deal and is a more of a stopgap measure. Greene turning into a reliable starter, one capable of making 30 starts, would not only put the Reds in position to win the division: meeting his potential would give the team the postseason starter it needs to get beyond just making the playoffs.”

———

A quiz:

Albert Pujols has the most home runs (589) over the past 20 seasons. Miguel Cabrera has the most doubles (606). Which player has the most singles from 2004-2023?

The answer can be found below.

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NEWS NOTES

Wade Boggs, Jack Curry, Brian Kenny, Danny Murtaugh, and Lefty O’Doul are the 2024 Irish Baseball Hall of Fame inductees. The announcement can be found here.

Steven P. Gietschier’s Baseball: The Turbulent Midcentury Years was awarded the 2024 SABR Seymour Medal, which honors the best book of baseball history or biography published during the preceding calendar year.

Bill Plummer, a catcher who played primarily for the Cincinnati Reds in a career that spanned the 1968-1978 seasons, died earlier this week at age 76. Johnny Bench’s backup on the Big Red Machine, Plummer later managed the Seattle Mariners in 1992, and he had several stints as a minor league skipper, including eight seasons in the Arizona Diamondbacks system.

Jim McAndrew, who pitched for the New York Mets from 1968-1973, and for the San Diego Padres in 1974, died Thursday at age 80. A native of Lost Nation, Iowa, the right-hander had his best season in 1972 when he went 11-8 with a 2.80 ERA.

——-

The answer to the quiz is Ichiro Suzuki, who logged 1,995 of his 2,514 career singles over the 20-year span. Cabrera (1,971) and Robinson Cano (1,699) have the second- and third-highest totals.

———

The Tigers moved the fences in prior to last season — they lowered them, as well — making Comerica Park less of a venue where long fly balls go to die. Which isn’t to say Detroit’s downtown venue became dinger-friendly. The dimensions are still challenging, especially straight away, where the centerfield wall stands 412 feet from home plate. As erstwhile FanGraphs contributor Tony Blengino wrote for Forbes last October, Comerica’s “fly ball park factors were over a standard deviation below average.”

I recently asked Tigers outfielder Kerry Carpenter for his thoughts on the somewhat-improved slugging environment.

“It still felt huge, but I did hit one that got out and wouldn’t have the year before,” Carpenter said. “I don’t really think about the dimensions, but when you hit a ball that gets caught on the track — it’s super deep and doesn’t go out — you kind of do. “

Carpenter hit 20 home runs last year, 14 on the road and six at home.

———

A random obscure former player snapshot:

Pete Rambo had a unique one-game career. Nineteen years old when he took the mound for the Philadelphia Phillies against the St. Louis Cardinals on September 16, 1926, the right-hander from Thorofare, New Jersey allowed six earned runs in three-and-two-thirds relief innings, giving him a 14.73 ERA for his efforts. His batting line was better. Rambo singled off of Flint Rhem in his only at-bat, leaving him with a lifetime batting average of 1.000. He got a no-decision as the Phillies were steamrolled by the Rogers Hornsby-managed Cardinals 23-3.

———

Torey Lovullo admitted earlier this week that he tends to get nervous as spring training is wrapping up. “There are no more days left,” the Arizona Diamondbacks manager told reporters. “There are no more days of spring training process that you can rely on. I’m always worried, ‘do we have enough in the bag?’ I start relying on my coaches and they’re like, ‘Relax; we’re good.’”

Lovullo went on to say that the team was currently “right in the middle of the fundamental storm,” and beginning to “ramp up the intensity.” He said that the game plan going forward is to “hit it hard, let them rest a little bit, hit it hard, let them rest a little bit, and then hit it hard the last couple of days before the season starts.”

The defending National League champs begin the 2024 campaign at home against the Colorado Rockies on March 28.

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

At Inside The Diamondbacks, Michael McDermott wrote about how Arizona’s young starters are learning to throw harder sliders.

At Forbes, Maury Brown talked to Oakland A’s president Dave Kaval, who (in Brown’s opinion) is having delusions of grandeur about relocating to Las Vegas.

MLB.com’s Maria Guardado wrote about 17-year-old Rayner Arias, a highly-regarded outfield prospect in the San Francisco Giants organization.

The Toronto Blue Jays have a pair of knuckleball pitchers in the pipeline, and R.A. Dickey is lending a hand in their development. Ben Nicholson-Smith has the story at Sportsnet Canada.

Jeff Luhnow is the most recent guest on Zack Scott’s Deconstructing Champions: The Art and Science of Winning podcast. The wide-ranging conversation includes the similarities in constructing successful baseball and soccer/football clubs.

———

RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

MLB history includes 27 players born in Ireland, 11 of whom have played since 1900. Patsy Donovan is among the notables, having appeared in 1,824 games and logged 2,256 hits (both Irish highs) from 1890-1907. A native of Cork, Donovan batted over .301 for his career.

Shawn Green had 7,963 plate appearances, 2,003 hits, and 3,502 total bases.
Joe Mauer had 7,960 plate appearances, 2,123 hits, and 3,040 total bases.

Spencer Strider is 32-10 with a 128 ERA+ through his age-24 season.
Schoolboy Rowe was 31-12 with a 124 ERA+ through his age-24 season

Jake Burger has a .300 career batting average in home games and a .200 career batting average in away games. He has 20 doubles at home and 20 doubles on the road.

The San Diego Padres went 82-80 last season with a plus-104 run differential. Their .506 winning percentage was the lowest in MLB history among teams to finish the year with a plus-100 run differential (per Elias, via Padres press notes).

Dae-Sung Koo came to the plate twice in an MLB career that saw him make 33 relief appearances for the New York Mets in 2005. The southpaw from Daejeon, South Korea fanned against Cincinnati Reds right-hander Todd Coffey. He doubled off of New York Yankees left-hander Randy Johnson.

The Atlanta Braves traded Joe Torre to the Cardinals in exchange for Orlando Cepeda on today’s date in 1969. Torre proceeded to log a 132 wRC+ and 25.5 WAR in six St. Louis seasons. Cepeda had a 120 wRC+ and 8.9 WAR in three-plus seasons with the Braves.

The Cincinnati Reds signed John Vander Wal as a free agent on today’s date in 2004. The veteran outfielder proceeded to go 6-for-51, including 1-for-27 as a pinch-hitter in what turned out to be his final big-league season. He batted .236 with 126 hits and 17 home runs as a pinch-hitter over the course of his career.

Players born on today’s date include Rick Lisi, an outfielder who went 5-for-16 with four walks over 20 plate appearances with the Texas Rangers in 1981. A native of Halifax, Nova Scotia who spent his high school years in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Ricardo Patrick Emilio Lisi finished his brief career with a .450 OBP and a 139 wRC+.

Also born on today’s date was Lymon Lamb, an infielder/outfielder who logged 176 big-league plate appearances while playing for the St. Louis Browns in 1920 and 1921. The Lincoln, Nebraska native had a historic minor league season in 1924 when he batted .373 with 100 doubles for the Western League’s Tulsa Drillers. Lamb played in 168 games and had 699 at-bats that year.

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